Keynote speaker Marc Howze delivered his keynote address during the three April 30 commencement ceremonies. Howze, a 1986 UM-Dearborn graduate who currently works at John Deere as the Office of the Chairman senior adviser, talked about barriers he faced, successes he achieved and what he's learned. If you missed the ceremonies, here’s the advice Howze shared with the Class of 2023.
The last time I was here on this stage was in 1986 as I addressed my fellow graduates as the student commencement speaker. To be here with you today is like life coming full circle.
While I don’t remember everything about that day, there are two things I distinctly remember.
The first is standing on the stage, looking at my fellow graduates and saying with throated vigor, “The future belongs to us!” In fact, I think my exact words were something like, “We are the future. The distinguished faculty and staff here on stage, they are the past. Of course, they may be influential in the present, but the future belongs to us!”
When I uttered those words, I was a first-generation college student born and raised on the east side of Detroit who had no shortage of hustle, grit and determination and worked his way through college cutting grass, building swimming pools, parking cars, selling ice cream and shining shoes — and had just earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the great University of Michigan-Dearborn.
They were also the words of someone who, after being here five years, was more than happy to leave an amazing institution where I received a stellar education because I never quite felt like I belonged.
There I was, having been selected to represent my fellow students. And yet I felt some kind of way. It would be fair of you to ask, “Why?” Well, my initial impressions and transition to campus life were difficult.
First there was the environment. I arrived on campus as a young Black man from the east side to a sea of white folks. Many of which looked at me with a mixture of fear and curiosity — a bit disconcerting.
Then there were some of my well-meaning classmates. Fellow students — who had never met a Black person, let alone had an actual conversation with someone Black — sought to compliment me, but rather, insulted me, by saying, “You’re not like most Black people.” To me, that was code for “I’ve been taught to have a negative impression of Black people and you don’t fit that stereotype. So rather than reevaluate stereotypes in the face of facts to the contrary, I’ve determined that you are just different.”
Then there was that one professor I met during an open house. After introducing myself and asking about his class, he told me point blank, “Do not take my class, you won’t do well.”
Then there was the university. The University of Michigan was still trying to rationalize their investments in the oppressive South African apartheid regime.
And finally, this was Dearborn — a city with a well-documented history of racism toward Black people. Remember, this was 1981 and segregationist mayor Orville Hubbard’s 36-year reign as mayor had ended just three years earlier.
Frankly, the cumulative effect of it all made me wonder if I really belonged.
While struggling with that question, I went home to attend church where I had an encounter with a soft-spoken little old lady we called Mother McDaniel. As I was contemplating quitting, she came up to me and told me how proud she was that I was going off to school. She told me that she never had the chance to go to school and wanted to help with my schooling. She reached into that little pocketbook and took out that change purse, opened that little handkerchief and gave me five dollars.
I was overwhelmed. At that moment, I realized I was the embodiment of the dreams of generations and here I was about to throw away the opportunity of a lifetime because I felt uncomfortable. I said to myself that day that I would never let anyone or anything, especially discomfort, make me quit. God had blessed me with this opportunity, how dare I walk away.
So I gathered myself, armed with my faith, fortitude, intellect, hustle and tenacity and said, “I’m not leaving.” Rather than leave, I got involved in the university community, student government and got involved with student activism. I met professors like Elaine Clark and the late Bernie Klein, who pushed me and inspired me and told me what was right about me and that I could make a difference.
I wanted to make this university a place where all students could be proud to arrive and thrive and not just survive. By the way, I also met the former Paula Brinston, who would later become my wife.
It was in that context that I called the University of Michigan-Dearborn faculty and staff “the past” and declared my fellow graduates “the future.” To be clear, while it was a statement of possibility, it was more than that. It was also my final act of defiance and rebellion.
So, here I stand, almost 40 years later, having raised four amazing children, achieved more than I ever dreamed possible, served my country in the Army for 15 years, reached the pinnacle of success in corporate America, blessed beyond measure, traveled the world, run multibillion dollar businesses.
But I also stand here with likely more yesterdays than tomorrows. I’m a lot older and, hopefully, a bit wiser. I know a lot more than I knew 40 years ago and I’m not quite as naive.
And it is in that context that I have one central message for you: The future belongs to you. But now, my message to you is not one of defiance, not one of rebellion, not one naivete. Rather, it is a truth born of a lifetime of experiences and hard lessons.
I mentioned that there were two things I remember. The second is what is hiding under those caps and gowns: a mixture of pride, relief, uncertainty, anxiety, a sense of urgency to get on with it, a need to have all the answers, a nagging feeling of “now what?”, not wanting to let folks down, will I finally get a job?, will I have to keep this job?, how will I pay for grad school?, how will I pay of this debt?... Will it be worth it?
On the outside, you look good, but on the inside, I know many of you are grappling with what the future holds for you. In the face of that anxiety, I have a second message: Not only does the future belong to you, you are prepared for the future. Make no mistake about it, you have earned and received a world-class education.
The University of Michigan-Dearborn is a great institution. Never wonder if you belong. The University of Michigan-Dearborn has prepared you for what lies beyond these walls. And, by the way, resist the temptation to drop the D.
I’m also an honors graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, as well as the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. I’m familiar with elite institutions. But make no mistake — it all started with the preparation I received right here at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. You are well prepared.
As you venture into the future, many of you think you need to have all the answers. And that you need to act with a sense of urgency to make your mark on the world and to get on with it. So I say again: you are prepared, but do not confuse a clear vision for a short journey. Have patience on the journey, but be patient with a purpose and work while you wait.
Just because the future is yours doesn’t mean it will be easy. Life and careers are not linear. Obstacles and detours will come. You may not always feel prepared. You may wonder if you are up to the challenge. You may find yourself in a strange environment and wonder if you belong.
But as you are faced with opportunities and choices, please consider this framework that has helped me through the years. Ask yourself:
- Will I learn something I don’t know? Be open to learning new things! I know you want to get on with it, but learning is not the enemy of execution.
- Will I develop relationships I don’t have? Relationships are the currency of business. That’s how things get done. People do business with people they trust, and people tend not to trust people they don’t know. So, don’t be a mystery. Engage and fully immerse. And remember that the best, most lasting relationships are forged in the crucible of struggle.
- Do I have the opportunity to be impactful? Can I work on things that matter? Identify the unmet need and fulfill it. Help some achieve their goals. Push your organization to be better. And don’t confuse activity with progress.
If you’ll be better as a result of the experience, don’t quit because it’s hard. In fact, run toward the challenge. Within these walls, grades are important, but if you really want to seize the future there are more things you need to develop:
- Learning agility. Can you think of creative ways to solve ever-evolving complex problems or are you a hammer and everything is a nail?
- Rapid master of assignment. Do you know how to accelerate your learning and focus on the most important things, the things that really make a difference, and not just the easy things, the quick wins?
- Initiative. See what needs to be done and do it, regardless of whether or not it’s your job.
- Emotional maturity. How do you act when you don’t get what you think you deserve? Do you shake it off and keep driving forward? Or do you pout, whine and complain? Disappointment will come, but don’t allow disappointment to become discouragement.
Do you make those around you better? I believe that the real fulfillment in life is based on what you give — not what you get. In the arithmetic of life, are you the one that adds and multiplies or subtracts and divides?
Finally, do not get locked into a specific version of the future. The world is constantly changing. The pace of change has never been faster. And the pace of change will never be slower than it is now.
It’s ok to not have all the answers. Not having all the answers is a superpower. Be curious and continually reevaluate what you think you know. You don’t want to be the person who is often wrong but never in doubt.
The future is yours — even if you don’t exactly know what to do with it just yet. As you stand gazing into a future of infinite possibilities, remember your best days are ahead. Remember to be a participant, not a passenger. Help to shape the future. Why? Because the future belongs to you.
Marc Howze’s speech has been lightly edited for style.